Disability Inclusion: What it Means to Enable the Assurant Workforce
Earlier this fall, the Assurant Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) team held a Courageous Conversations panel series. Hear from some of our participants.
According to Inspiring Girls International, 70% of females feel more confident about their career ambition when they hear from other women. And there’s no doubt that the global workforce needs women to pursue their career ambitions right now. In a recent article where we explored the challenges facing women in the workplace, we noted that women account for 54% of job losses worldwide over the last year – which is disproportionate when you consider that they only make up 39% of the workforce. As part of our commitment to the growing need to support women in the workplace, several of Assurant’s female leaders recently shared their stories on LinkedIn under the #ThisLittleGirlIsMe hashtag. Here’s what they had to say about inspiring each other and future generations.
Emily L., Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Director at Assurant
This little girl grew up shy in a community where there wasn’t a single teacher, administrator, leader, or politician who looked like her. After school, she helped raise her little brother, tutor her sister, and helped her immigrant parents with paperwork in English. When she went out to eat with her family in public, she faced disapproving glares because her family spoke in their native language. As she aspired to be a lawyer, she was told that she was too smiley and not aggressive enough to be taken seriously, and that she’d have to choose between making it in corporate and being a mother.
This little girl also had parents who believed in her, who supported her, and who told her she could be anything she wanted to be. She had teachers and professors who encouraged her to shoot for the stars. She dove into music and community service. She sought out her own mentors for advice. She received support from diversity programs that recognized her ambition and potential. While she doubted herself at times, she spoke up, spent countless hours working hard, and she told herself she had a right to exist in the space as her true, authentic self. She went to law school, won “Best Oralist” at her first moot court competition, became a corporate attorney at a top international law firm, and is now Global Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at a Fortune 500 company AND a proud mom and aunt.
Linda R., SVP of Global Enterprise Communications at Assurant
This little girl is me. When I was about 4, my father built us a cement pool — all of about 3’ in the deep end — in our backyard. Though I look happy in this picture, it’s probably only because there’s no water in the pool. At that age, I was deathly afraid of the water. But as I grew, I found the courage to learn to hold my nose and go under, then to swim and float - and eventually to even waterski at age 11. Now, you can’t get me out of the water in the summer. I love it - pool, lake or ocean. You can’t let your fears overtake you at work or in life. You don’t always have to jump into the deep-end right away, but at least ‘get your feet wet’ and learn and go from there. Find a mentor - my grandmother was a medal-winning swimmer and she taught me how to float. Find a champion - my Mom, who couldn’t swim, always cheered me as I swam even a few feet across the pool. Push yourself to walk in or jump into a challenge at work. If you’re sitting on the side, not only will you’ll never learn, you’ll never experience how much fun it all can be!
Jill H., VP of Federal Affairs at Assurant
What would you tell this little girl?
This little girl was born with fiery red hair and a spirit to match. But this little girl was teased and bullied incessantly, and her confidence and self-worth suffered during her teenage years. This little girl also had her world shattered at age 14 when her family’s financial stability collapsed. She had to navigate high school with considerable stress at home and find a way to go to college and pay for it herself. In college, she worked to become a student leader on campus and met someone who helped her land an interview in the United States Senate - a job she landed while working as a temp. This little girl moved to Washington, DC with $500 borrowed dollars in her pocket, no friends, and no place to live – but an opportunity and a pittance salary. She had to work two other jobs on nights and weekends just to make ends meet. Yet, this little girl had a will to figure it out despite the considerable hurdles taking place behind the scenes. This little girl is me.
Shawn K., VP of Corporate Responsibility & Community Engagement at Assurant
This little girl loved her daddy. He seemed bigger than life. He was strong, confident and earned the respect of many.
When his daughter wanted high-top sneakers decades before they came in girls’ sizes, he bought red ones. When she wanted to be an artist, he gave her a paintbrush and a piece of wood to create a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. When it was time to fill care packages in the basement of City Hall for the soldiers in Vietnam, he put her to work.
If her brother wanted a rocket or model car to build, he bought two so she would have the same chance to learn and create. He expected good grades and hard work so she could get a college scholarship – and become whatever would make her happy. That’s what mattered.
She was 14 when he died. It was too soon but not too late. His lessons of love and for life endure today. She can do, try, be, help, care, love, laugh, create, learn, change, inspire, challenge and find joy in the simplest of moments. She can define what success and happiness mean for her. She can pass it on.
This little girl became me.
Francesca L., EVP, Chief Administrative Officer at Assurant
When I was three, I declared to my parents that I wanted to be an actress. And why not? I had a diverse repertoire of characters from play acting and my “expressive” demeanor. I could be a doctor, and just a few minutes later, reappear as a pirate sailing my backyard. My parents never said “be more realistic, tone it down, recognize that dreams aren’t reality.” They encouraged me. Of course, I never became an actress, nor a doctor, nor a pirate. But I did have a chance to chart a career – far from conventional because of my parents and the many allies and mentors who encouraged me to simply be me. I struggled with it – I really did, and likely for too long since it is always easier to blend in, follow conventional truths. But over time, I found out that being me made things happen and got me motivated to focus on making a difference. And you will too.
Margaret N., VP of Marketing at Assurant
This little girl grew up in a family where English was a second language and every family member had to chip in to help with day-to-day chores. Watching network television, a couple hours, was the most screen time you would get in a day. Both her parents worked full time in blue collar jobs and tried to set the example that you can get ahead if you work hard every day. No Google, Uber or TikTok, she somehow managed by going to the library, taking the city bus or meeting with friends in person.
Around the age of 13, she started babysitting and when she turned 16, she got her first “real” job. She was lucky to have two older sisters who smoothed the way for her with her parents, in school and in the city. They showed her how to be independent, confident and to follow her heart.
When she got her first professional job out of college, she was in a field where men far outnumbered women. She was a bit naïve and didn’t always see how being a woman could be a disadvantage until the day she was the only woman in an important meeting. A man asked her to fetch him a cup of coffee, believing she was with the caterer, and not a participant. She was fortunate to have colleagues and mentors, male and female, who recognized her value and encouraged her to take on new challenges and explore growth opportunities that she may not have felt ready for yet.
She left a safe job and took a chance on a start-up company not once but four times. Though two ultimately failed, the experiences were still invaluable, and she uses the lessons learned today. Every new career opportunity came about through a network of colleagues or friends that helped propel her forward. She married, started a family and raised two children while navigating a career… sometimes successfully and sometimes with less grace.
Who is this little girl/this woman? I am that girl/that woman. I am forever thankful for all the support I have received throughout my journey.
Jena S., Manager of Global Email at Assurant
As it turns out, this little girl wasn’t so “girly” after all…. And that was her power.
She grew up playing any and every sport she could. She challenged her classmates to a game of HORSE and after some of the boys ridiculed her about being a girl, they reluctantly agreed to play. After a few shots, they started to take her seriously… and pretty soon, they found themselves behind. They would get so upset about losing “to a girl.” It took several years of her youth to understand that boys sometimes hold themselves at a higher standard than girls when it comes to things like sports, so losing “to a girl” was somehow even worse than just losing. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop her from competing and challenging herself to do things that she was passionate about, regardless of society’s gender traditions. She grew up playing fastpitch softball, basketball and volleyball. She wasn’t afraid to be sweaty or covered in dirt. She learned to shoot guns with her dad and loved being outside. She never wore makeup and hated when her mom forced her to change out of basketball shorts. She baited her own fishing hook, absolutely loved riding her four wheeler and her most memorable Christmas was the year she got a basketball goal. Her ideas of going against the grain didn’t change much in her adult life. I mean, she wore blue converse on her wedding day…
Fast-forward to her first job post-college and she didn’t fit in with the women she was surrounded by and always felt out of step, which wasn’t making her happy. She gravitated to the male-dominated industry of development and martech. She loved the challenge. She grew passionate about the puzzle of it all. It was difficult. It was non-traditional, and like so many of her years of athletics had taught her, it would take hustle, dedication and a lot of practice… and you would never truly be done, just better. She stuck with it, busted her ass and got a job that involved heavy HTML/CSS development and CRM data knowledge. She continued to push and learn and pursue her passions in those areas. Fast forward again to today, and she has written a children’s sports book, freelanced and volunteered for development opportunities, and started a candle company that brings her peace. She grew her family, hustled every day, and created a life she was proud of. And as it turns out, there is a lot of power in stepping out of those gender traditions and living your passions.
Toni B., SVP of Lifestyle Operations (U.S.) at Assurant
This Little Girl grew up in a large family and was the youngest of 8 children. The age gap between her and her siblings ranged from 8-20 years. Everyone else was grown and working, but she had no idea what she wanted to be when she grew up, and there wasn’t a lot of talk about things like that.
Since This Little Girl was always around adults, she learned to have a voice and to hold her own in conversations. Some people thought that was very grown up of her, but others called the Little Girl sassy or ‘too big for her britches’. Her mother told her to never let anyone break her spirit, that she would grow into it. She was always reminded to be kind to other people, always think about what it would be like to walk in their shoes, and to make the right choices – even when no one was watching. She wanted her mother to be proud of her.
As she got older, This Little Girl wanted a plan and was disappointed to not have one. Until she looked around and realized that not everyone had a master roadmap for their life. She realized that many successful people built a path as they go. She decided then and there to put one foot in front of the other and make her way. She vowed to work her hardest and make the most out of every opportunity. She met a lot of wonderful people along her journey, who saw her work ethic and drive, and they believed in her ability to do great things.
This Little Girl had the courage to pave her way with help and guidance, and every day she’s amazed and thankful for everything she is. Now, her focus is on being a business leader who helps others to make their way, whatever that means for them.
Chandra W., SVP of Talent at Assurant
After years of sitting in a hot and steamy pool balcony watching the “big kids” practice, I finally turned five. The coach called out to me one day and said, “If you can swim the length of the pool, you can join the team.” So, I suited up, approached the block with great trepidation but confidently leapt off the block like a frog, and then proceeded to take over 100 strokes. While my form may have been lacking, I was 110% committed. Much to my surprise, once I got to the other side, my new coach, sister, and many others, many of whom were strangers, were cheering me on. This moment may seem small, but it set a path for so many other moments that followed.
A couple of bigger moments I experienced during my teenage years were my parents’ divorce and my sister getting sick. These moments taught lessons about independence (being able to drive my path and support myself) and dependence (being part of a broader network - family, friends, and others). Both are critically important.
Growing up, I aspired to be a doctor, a physical therapist, a teacher, a marketing executive, a coach, a psychologist, and a mother of five. And while I obviously did not pursue all of these, I do embody aspects of many of them in my day-to-day life today.
Everyday, there are moments (small and big) that shape the path ahead. Sometimes, it is difficult to see the opportunities as sometimes they come from setbacks or hardships, but they are there every day. Listen for those invitations, offer out invitations, dig deep and push to stretch beyond your comfort zone, and remember that you rarely have to go it alone. There are others who have gone before you, will work alongside you, and who will learn from you.
Monica B., Director, Community Giving and Engagement at Assurant
This little girl is a native of Tanzania. She grew up in her home country, the U.K and the U.S. Her father was a diplomat, so her parents traveled frequently and opened their home to people from all over the world. Having lived in different countries she found she could adapt to new environments but was curious about why life was so glaringly different in Dar-es-salaam versus Washington D.C. It was the little things like store shelves with a plethora of choices in one country and waiting over an hour just to get wheat flour at a government mill in another. These contrasts fueled her desire to understand why such an imbalance existed.
Her parents prioritized education and encouraged her to explore a path best suited for her. Unlike her peers who went to college with certainty about their career track she had no clue. But her desire to understand social economic inequities persisted especially when she could see the same pattern of inequality in the cities where she lived as a young adult in the U.S.
It was not until she had the opportunity to pursue an internship with the YMCA of the USA International Group, she began to chart her career path. From there she went on to work for international and national nonprofits, a foundation and eventually landed a role managing corporate social responsibility initiatives for a Fortune 500 company. In her role today she leads, encourages, and supports employee volunteer initiatives and community engagement. She is helping to shape a legion of volunteers and global citizens. With their help she hopes to foster greater balance, goodness, and equity in this world.
This little girl is me. I listened to my heart and found my place doing what I love.
Diana B., Lead Counsel, Business Legal at Assurant
This little girl was born in Bogota, Colombia. Her single mother struggled with mental health issues, so her grandparents raised her. Her family struggled to make ends meet. Her grandmother was especially supportive of her because she could not finish elementary school and wanted her granddaughter to be self-sufficient. This little girl knew her family could not afford to pay for her university and public university is not widely available in Colombia. Thousands of people took a very competitive entrance test at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and competed for the 100 seats that were available in law school that year. She was lucky to get one. Five years later she graduated as an attorney.
At age 23, she moved to the United States. She was constantly told that she could never practice law in the United States because those were not the jobs that immigrants did. Since she did not know English, she believed it. She studied English and got a job at a law firm as file clerk where she was lucky to meet an attorney, who believed in her and pushed her to continue her legal education. A year later she was admitted to the University of Miami’s School of Law. Her entire family was concerned about the huge loan she would end up having for her degree, but they were supportive of her goals. Her graduation day was one of the happiest days for her grandmother.
Six years after arriving in the United States, she was admitted to the New York Bar and found a job at a growing multinational company providing legal advice to executives in all levels, including its founder. Four years later, she was promoted to the Lead Counsel role for the Latin American region by the company’s first female General Counsel. This General Counsel became her mentor, believed in her more than she believed in herself, trained her, and empowered her to make decisions until she developed the confidence required to excel in her role as part of the senior leadership team for the region.
By age 30, she managed a million-dollar department budget and recruited lawyers in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil. She moved into other roles in other companies and currently works for a Fortune 500. She is proud of her accomplishments as a lawyer, but she is humbled by all the colleagues and direct reports she has been able to train and support.
She got married to a very supportive partner and had two sons, who are the center of her universe. She has an amazing network of working moms who had shared with her valuable advice but she is struggling to keep balance during the pandemic. She is looking for ways to give back to her native country and wants to increase access to higher public education to give opportunities to other little girls.
Monique P., Senior Counsel, Governance at Assurant
This little girl grew up in government housing projects. Her parents worked full-time but life was hard. When her father’s alcoholism created a toxic home environment, her mom was forced to navigate life’s challenges for the family on her own. This little girl ate from food banks and shopped at Goodwill secondhand stores. Wanting more for her children, her mom prioritized education, including selling 4,000 candy bars for a school trip to Italy and Greece. Equipped with an understanding that the world was bigger than her drug-infested neighborhood, this little girl became the first college graduate in her entire family, including her 15 maternal aunts and uncles. She completed evening division law school while working full-time, became a licensed attorney, and received an MBA. She’s worked for successful global corporations and provided legal advice to powerful corporate executives. She’s accomplished many things of which her parents couldn’t dream. A proud mom of two little girls, she is committed to building a better tomorrow for other brown and black girls because #BlackLivesMatter. A sustainable tomorrow requires diversity today. Although her journey hasn’t been easy or conventional, with a few helping hands, people who believed in her, and a sprinkle of #BlackGirlMagic, this little girl broke the generational curses of poverty that plagued her family for generations. Against all odds, she wasn’t reduced to a statistic and neither will you. 💕
Millie M., SVP, Total Rewards and Wellbeing at Assurant
This little girl arrived in the U.S. with her mom, dad, and younger sister with nothing more than the clothes on her back. She never imagined that she would leave her small rural town in Cuba and start a brand-new life in New Jersey - far away from her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. A place where she didn’t understand the language and had no friends.
As she grew up, she learned about the sacrifices her parents made so that she could have opportunities they never had. As the oldest sibling, she was the family translator (parents didn’t understand English), the GPS (Google maps didn’t exist), babysitter and private tutor to her younger sister (she needed A LOT of help with her homework). She worked throughout her high school years to save for college and was the first in her family to attend and graduate. Despite all of the financial hardships, this little girl never felt that she was missing out on anything. She had everything she needed – love, encouragement, and purpose. When she encountered an obstacle, or challenge, or risk she thought was insurmountable, she remembered what her parents did. Risked everything they had and left the only life they knew to give her the opportunity for a better life. She has achieved all that and more with the greatest achievement being a role model herself to her two daughters.
Deborah B., SVP, Customer Experience at Assurant
This little girl grew up in a household where although she was fairly poor, she always had food on the table. More importantly, she had two parents who, despite their own difficulties and divorce, were always consistently clear and united in telling AND showing her how much her voice mattered. She grew up always knowing how unconditionally loved she was, and being told that she could accomplish anything she put her mind toward achieving. Her parents' financial situation always bothered her, but ended up equipping her with the knowledge that she'd have to work hard for whatever she wanted in life. It also ended up giving her a strong drive and work ethic, knowing that the one person most accountable for her success in life was HER.
She worked her way through high school and her first two years of college before becoming pregnant and having her first daughter at the ripe old age of 20. She found a job at a nice company a friend recommended, and that job ended up becoming a super successful 20-year career in financial services. She had another daughter, a divorce, another marriage and the discovery of the love and trials that only a blended family can bring. Her only sister died, leaving behind a beautiful daughter who would become part of that big and crazy blended family.
All along this journey, this little girl experienced the ups and downs of work and life, of joy and pain, of triumphs and disappointments, of our connections to each other as humans. And each time a new experience brought her some insight, she added that to her tool belt and kept on truckin'. She became more and more and more authentically herself with each curve and bump in the road, and found that every time she became more herself, her world and opportunities opened even more. Most importantly of all, her story is still being written - every single day.
Kelli E., VP of Global Auto Planning at Assurant
My grandma was a teacher and my mom had a corporate career. Growing up, my world consisted of the understanding that women were part of the workplace and played important leadership roles. Women worked. Period. As I grew older, I realized that Grandma and Mom had paved their ways. Women worked, yes, but it was much more nuanced than this. Careers had to be purposefully cultivated and prioritized, and it was not necessarily "the norm." From a young age, I had ambitions to be a working woman, just like my family. I wanted to be a babysitter, then a writer, then a business person. As I built my career, I met more inspiring women along the way. They also showed me that you could be successful in business, regardless of being a woman. They brought a host amazing skills and capabilities, as well as authenticity and leadership, to the table. I am forever grateful that I was taught by example that I could make an impact through having a career.
Rose W., Senior Account Executive at Assurant
This little girl grew up in a cornfield.
She had no friends nearby - the nearest neighborhoods with other kids to play with were miles out of reach. Her family had no cable television or internet - just a few local TV stations and the radio at night. In her rural Midwest community, she had exposure to very little diversity of thought, race, religion or spiritualism, political ideology, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender expression. She didn't have anywhere to go, or any idea of how to get there. She spent a lot of time outside, barefoot in the grass (or gravel).
What this little girl did have was a family who loved to read, and a house full of books: the epic fantasy of Katherine Kurtz and Robert Jordan, science fiction novels based on the worlds of Star Wars and Star Trek, Louis Lamour's Westerns, the classic adventures of the Hardy Boys and the more modern adventures by Clive Cussler, historical sagas by James A. Michener. She read them all, so she knew that the world was bigger than where she was, and that she wanted to see it all one day. And so it was that her first time on an airplane, when she was 13 years old, she left her family for a month to travel to the other side of the world as a Student Ambassador in Australia.
This little girl stopped being afraid to ask a question, to speak up or speak out, to seek out a new experience or a different perspective, or to push a little harder. She didn't "stay in her lane."
This little girl took the compassion, integrity, and work ethic instilled in her as a child to become the first woman in her family to obtain a four-year university degree, and then to complete post-graduate work. She has gone on to continue her education - both formally and informally - as a life-long learner; to support foundations and nonprofit organizations that create positive change in the world; to live and work abroad; and to develop a career she could never have imagined within a multi-national, Fortune 500 company that excels in the execution of its DEI and ESG strategies.
Today, this little girl has become a confident businessperson, a champion for inclusion, and a woman who endeavors always to be the kind of role model any child can look up to.
Khristie P., Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Program Manager at Assurant
This little girl grew up in an chaotic environment with a mother who struggled with her mental health, and a father who didn't know what to do. Due to the hostile environment at home, she didn't have any female role models to guide the way, and was desperately envious of her friends who experienced "normal" family lives and structures.
During her isolated adolescence she found role models through singers such as Mary J Blige. Mary's 'My Life' and 'Love&Life' albums are still the most played albums on her Spotify.
At 22, this little girl found role models, mentors, allies, friends and wing-women in the working environment. Her first wing-woman was a woman called Debbie Farquhar at EE, followed by Penny Fleet Assoc CIPD and many more. She's had mentors, wing-people and allies ever since. The organisations she's worked for have all supported her career aspirations and made them happen despite her chronic imposter syndrome. Currently forever learning, growing and exploring in the workplace in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion & HR at Assurant.
This little girl is not defined by her dysfunctional childhood.
Marilyn P., SVP, Chief Information Security Officer at Assurant
This little girl was the first generation of her family to be born in the United States. Her parents had immigrated from Cuba with literally nothing but hope and courage, to rebuild their lives in a free country, with access to basic human rights, and endless opportunity. She was raised in a primarily Hispanic neighborhood, in a home shared by three generations of family members where Spanish was the first and only language. As she grew, she became her family’s resident translator, her grandparent’s English tutor (as they phonetically memorized questions and answers for their U.S. citizenship exam), and a spark in the eyes of her parents, who were living vicariously through her while dreaming of a brighter future. Her parents worked hard and did not have much, but she never lacked anything. She may not have had access to brand name fashions, the latest electronic gadget, or lavish vacations, but she had unconditional love, unwavering support, and the ability to value moments and experiences over material things. In exchange for all her parent’s sacrifices, the only thing she was asked to do was focus on and excel at her education. She was taught that a person’s education could never be taken away and it would be the key to opening doors of opportunities for a better life. She was also taught to become her own person and to support herself, so that she never had to depend on anyone else. Because of her upbringing, this little girl learned early on about the importance of family, faith, education, work ethic, perseverance, and grace.
This little girl with humble beginnings graduated high school with honors. She went on to get Bachelor and Master degrees, as well as several professional licenses and certifications. She now has a strong and loving marriage of 25 years, has raised two amazing children, and has had successful career where she has attained a senior leadership position in a discipline that is still dominated by men. She continues to be blessed with the presence of her parents, who are still her greatest supporters and continue to look at her with that same spark of joy and hope in their eyes.